Cuban Missile Crisis: History and Facts
The main reason that the United States and the Soviet Union were able to avoid war during the Cuban Missile crisis was the existence of nuclear weapons and the fear of nuclear war. The two superpowers certainly considered going to war with each other – throughout history, nations have gone to war with one another for far more frivolous reasons. However, with the development of nuclear weaponry, neither side could be entirely confident of victory. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had hundreds of nuclear weapons each by the 1960s, so even the “victor” of war would have emerged as a shattered nation.
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The presence of nuclear weapons forced the superpowers to consult closely with their allies before making any irreversible decision to go to war. President Kennedy consulted closely with his NATO allies during the crisis, particularly with the British (Munton and Welch 60). Of course, with millions of Red Army soldiers behind the Iron Curtain, the NATO counties would likely have been the first countries attacked by the Soviet Union if a full-fledged war had broken out. As a result, they were understandably less eager for World War III to break out than some generals in the Pentagon were, and they helped to cool the passions of the United States.
The fear of a nuclear war also helped to restrain the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had suffered much more horrendously in World War II than many in the West realized – tens of millions of its citizens were killed, and the physical and economic damage to the country may have been even worse.
The Soviet Union had spent the last 18 years rebuilding, but an all-out nuclear war with the United States would almost certainly have left the country worse off than before. Since nuclear war would have undone all of the Soviet Union’s progress in a matter of hours or days, Nikita Kruschev was willing to make major concessions to the United States without worrying about losing face.
In a world without nuclear weapons, both sides may have preferred going to war rather than risk a loss of prestige by making concessions. For example, World War I began largely because of the alliance system – the major powers felt they had no choice but to go to war when their allies dragged them in, even though they did not necessarily have great interests at stake.
In the nuclear era, this sense of “honor” was a luxury that the United States and the Soviet Union could not afford.
The Soviet Union agreed to pull its missiles out of Cuba and the United States pledged not to invade Cuba simply to avoid the effects of a catastrophic nuclear war.
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Munton, Don, and David A. Welch. The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Concise History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.